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January 14, 1990 • The Providence Journal

A first-time user explores the new electronic world

By Sheila Lennon

Do you have to be a computer whiz to cruise the electronic bulletin boards?

I spent one long day and two nights finding out.

My computer history is slender: essentially a journalist's basic word-processing on a different type of computer. Computer manuals (apparently written by people who flunked English as a Second Language) assume much and teach little.

As I turned on the switches, I fully expected this experiment to end in frustration and anger, my self-esteem crushed.

The first attempt, last Sunday afternoon, was disastrous. I couldn't connect. The lines were all busy. Computers hung up on me after a flurry of weird bleeps and squawks. Six hours and no cigar, but I couldn't face the humiliation of reporting failure.

After dinner, a breakthrough.

More beeps and squawks, then the magic word, CONNECT, and type poured onto the screen, welcoming me and asking my name. I discovered a new world.

This world contains an astonishing amount of information - not just high-tech goodies for computer "phreaks," but also programs that will figure your income tax, help you put out a newsletter, protect your system from viruses, or let you play video games and create graphics, along with political essays, humor, drawings, horoscopes and recipes. You can get together with five strangers to chat, or send "mail" to a friend.

There are always "menus" listing what's available, and instructions on selecting what you want.

Typing "J" on most boards lets you "join a conference," a special interest group (SIG for short). If you register your interest in the TEEN sig, next time you'll be able to "meet" and exchange messages with other teenagers; if you're interested in a WRITERS sig, you can not only meet writers, but also copy special programs of interest to writers. You can join a group of people using the same type of computer you do, and learn the tricks from them. And if you're on a big national hookup, you could, for instance, find yourself reading files and exchanging messages on sports, metaphysics, the Grateful Dead, "adult topics," science fiction, scouting or cuisine with people from North Carolina and California.

Typing "F" at the main menu usually gives you an annotated list of what files are in this bulletin board's library to read or copy to your own system.

It's like turning on a television with thousands of programs ready to run whenever you want to see them. You're welcome to copy them for future use, and encouraged to pass them on to others. And it's free, although donations keep it growing.

The social, political and educational possibilities of free networks linking thousands of people willing to share their expertise are exciting. School libraries could become community centers at night, with students helping their parents run programs that compute their income taxes, teach languages and skills. We could read any book ever written, even if there's only one copy in the world. We could publish with no middleman. Politicians could answer questions electronically sent to them by constituents as they rock the baby at home. Who knows, Carl Sagan or Tina Turner or Richard Marx or Whoopi Goldberg or Peter Max might stop by to chat.

And all it takes to get into this new world is the humility to put in a few nights of hanging in there despite stupid mistakes.

A few tips from one who's been there:

* Read as much as you can get through in the owner's manuals that came with your equipment. You'll save a lot of aggravation if you know a few simple commands.

* There is often a real person, called the system operator, watching from behind the screen like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. These sysops, as they're called, may break in to chat, especially if you're one of the few females roaming this world, or if they see that you're hopelessly lost.

* Find out how to cancel "call waiting." (This may be in your modem manual.) If you don't cancel it, an incoming call will "dump carrier" - cut you off. On my second evening on line, I opened a board to find the message, "Who was the jerk who dumped carrier on me last night?" Sorry, that was me: The phone rang. Typing "G" (for goodbye) is the way to exit gracefully.

Sheila Lennon is the Journal-Bulletin lifestyles editor.

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DOGMA 2000
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